Though it is only about 21,000 square feet, or just under .05 acres, the GrowTorah garden at Congregation Ohr HaTorah speaks volumes to its 270 families and the wider Jewish community.
“The real impetus behind the garden was COVID,” said Miriam Seidman, the synagogue’s director of experiential Jewish education. “Rabbi [Adam] Starr has a vision for the congregation and the space to be like a Jewish summer camp, both with a vibrant setting indoors and outdoors. We call it our ‘happy Jewish space.’”
After the initial pandemic shutdown in early 2020, the congregation’s youth started meeting outside that June. Seidman, who moved to Atlanta the previous August, suggested borrowing a concept from New Jersey-based GrowTorah, which develops experiential and environmental Torah education programs for Jewish institutions, primarily schools.
Seidman and Starr say that their congregation is the first to partner with GrowTorah. Seidman credits the generosity of Morris and Gabby Cohen, whose daughter, Maya Hazel Cohen, died unexpectedly when she was a few months old.
Today the garden is flourishing with apple, fig and pomegranate trees, herbs such as basil, chives, mint and parsley, as well as cucumbers, snap peas, peppers, tomatoes and cantaloupe, said Seidman. The congregation’s younger members are taught how to work the garden, taste from the garden, harvest and say the correct blessings for each type of produce.
“Everything is a Torah lesson,” she adds. The children are taught to donate some of the harvest, while some is left for the poor and homeless. Members of the wider Jewish community are invited to sample the garden’s bounty.
Since this Jewish year of 5782 is the year of Shmita, or sabbatical year, when agricultural land in Israel is left to rest, Ohr HaTorah has also set aside part of its garden to teach its members about this Torah mandate.
With the Atlanta Jewish Academy bus stop nearby, disembarking school children wander through the garden every school day.
“We’re getting families to visit from Virginia Highlands and Brookhaven who are picking up their children,” said Seidman.
The garden is only one part of the congregation’s outdoor space. There’s also a playground that has been upgraded and a wooded park area with a clearing for benches, said Seidman, who has bigger plans for the future.
She really likes the camp idea. “We want the synagogue to be a community center, both on Shabbat and during the week. It can be a place for the Jewish people from Toco Hills to meet,” she said.